If you’ve ever tried to grow a garden before, you’ve probably run into the idea of planting zones. Or in other words, you’ve come up against the reality that what we can grow in our gardens in largely dependent on what kind of temperatures we experience during the year. Other climate information like rainfall and even wind also play a part. We hope this article will start to take the mystery out of planting zones and climate, including how they’re relevant to your garden and homestead. Included are FREE climate tracking sheets so that you can gather important planting zone information for your land to improve design, worth with your garden and not against it, and increase your harvests!
To make all this information a little easier to assimilate AND to help you get started improving your harvests, please join our newsletter family and download your FREE climate data worksheets. Getting all the climate information you can for your own homestead and gardens will help you make plans for increasing your abundance right away!
Planting Zones: Understanding Climate and Microclimates
It can be so frustrating to plant gardens and raise livestock on the homestead only to struggle with poor yields, diseases, limited growth, and in short, not the return on your investment that you had anticipated.
While there are a lot of factors that contribute to abundant harvests on the homestead, understanding the climate you live in is vital among them. Learning how to observe, record, and use the climate data you collect on your land will result in better plant health and a more successful homestead.
If you’re new to the concept of planting zones, aren’t sure what a microclimate is, and/or are unclear on how you can appropriately apply information about your climate to your gardens and homesteads, I’m hopeful this article will help answer your questions.
The ultimate goal of our work on the homestead is to implement good design to create self-sustaining abundance! To do that, we need all the information about our land that we can possibly gather.
This reconnaissance begins with climate!
What is Climate?
Climate in reference to the planting zones includes temperature, precipitation, and the direction and strength of the wind each month of the year. Collecting climate data for our gardens and homesteads helps us understand more about the planting zone we live in and which plants and animals we should grow.
The four seasons are also associated with climatic conditions. Each garden and homesteader learns to pay close attention to the seasons and the predictable changes they bring. These observations help us create good garden and homestead designs that are less likely to destabilize over time and more likely to be self-sustaining.
In other words, understanding climate in the garden and on the homestead will help you set up food and energy producing systems – gardens, livestock, water catchment, etc. – that will succeed because they are correctly oriented for the climate in which you live.
It does you no good to set up your gardens and homestead to mimic those of your favorite Youtube gardener or homesteader if they live in a climate that is completely different from yours. You must use the data that exists in your planting zone to reflect the reality of your growing conditions.
How Climate Effects Planting Decisions
I’ll give you a silly example. I LOVE lilacs. Love them.
When I lived in the intermountain western state of Utah, my planting zone and climate reality ensured that I could grow all the varieties of lilac I wanted as long as I provided afternoon shade (lilacs don’t care for extreme heat).
When I moved to the Southern state of North Carolina and later the Midwestern state of Missouri, the lilac varieties appropriate for my planting zone dropped to basically one. This is the only lilac that will reliably survive both my variable winter temperatures that range from warmish to stupidly cold and my hot, miserable, humid summers.
I could waste my energy, money, and time planting all those other varieties of lilac only to have them die. Or I can plant that one variety of lilac all over my homestead and enjoy the scent and sight of their hardy blooms every year.
I can also learn about all the wonderful varieties of native flowering bushes that already grow in my current climate and are most likely to thrive without much fussing from me and plant those in profusion.
An Exception to Planting Zone Planting
I’m a big proponent of choosing plants based on you planting zone, as illustrated above. However, there is one exception to this rule.
If you have a plant that you really are invested in growing and that plant is just on the border of your planting zone and you’re willing to invest some time and capital into experimentation, you can carefully select a microclimate on the homestead that will most likely support that plant. (More information on microclimates is outlined below.)
I live in growing zone 6, where I can grow several reliable grape vine varieties. The variety I really want to grow, though, is a Scuppernong grape – a large, delicious, productive Southern grape in the Muscadine family. (I’d even settle for Mustang grapes or any native, wild grape that has that strong flavor I’m looking for.)
Technically, Scuppernongs grow in planting zone 7 and above, but I have read of a few places in my state where they will grow and produce. I really love these grapes and it’s worth it to me to experiment with finding the right place to plant them on my homestead.
This may take me several tries, which means purchasing several vines. It may also happen that I get a few good years of growth, only to have a severe frost or an extreme summer kill my vines back to the ground.
It’s equally possible that I will be able to find the perfect place to plant my scuppernongs that protects them from:
- early blooming – a problem with late spring frosts which are common in my area.
- as well as breaking dormancy early – a problem in areas where winter temperatures change to spring temperatures and then back again to winter in rapid succession.
It’s also possible that even if my vines die back, they will regenerate the next year producing new growth and even go on to be stronger and healthier for their difficult experience.
The only way to know what will happen is to try!
So, while I’ll never advise that, while living in zone 3 you attempt to grow plants that can only thrive in planting zone 7, there are certainly times when it’s appropriate to experiment with bending the rules of your planting zone.
Nature is remarkable at adaptation and will often surprise you with what it can do. Further, it can be important to develop plants that are strong, adaptable, and able to thrive even in difficult environments.
(Learning to propagate and save seed from these survivors is an important skill to learn when you’re ready, FYI.)
Further Understanding Climate – How is it Relevant?
Here’s a little more discussion on why climate matters in the garden and on the homestead. Observation is an important skill to master as a gardener and homesteader.
Observing climate on our land and recording that data will help us see patterns, predict future climate and how climate changes might behave, and create good homestead and garden designs based on the realities of where you live.
We also need to understand climate to:
- plant our gardens in the correct place for the right amount of sun, shade, cold, heat, wind
- choose the correct plants and animals that will thrive in our area
- build in the correct place for sun orientation in each season
- place/plant wind and fire breaks in the appropriate areas
- use it to generate energy with the sun or wind, or collect water from the rain
- especially use microclimates to mitigate the effect of climate extremes in our gardens and on our homestead
- use good design to create diversity in our gardens and on our homestead – creating areas of production in marginal spaces like small niches and the edges of each area (in permaculture we call these areas zones, not to be confused with planting zones)
To break this down even further, especially for those of us who are new to gardening and homesteading, here’s some further general information on climate aspects and why you and I need to observe and record them.
We’re very accustomed to this word – temperature is something we think about all the time as regards our own comfort, clothing choices, etc. Your garden, livestock, and homestead in general are also keenly aware of the temperature and how it effects and affects them from day to day.
We usually define temperature by how we experience it; we use words like hot, cold, frosty, blistering, and even humid (which refers to the amount of moisture in the air).
These descriptors can also be applied to every animal and plant on the homestead because each one experiences the realities of climate every day. After all, they don’t have an insulated house to go into, so they need to learn to adapt and thrive will experiencing climate consistently.
How to Use Temperature Data
Temperature data can be used in very practical ways. For example, a tomato requires not only hours of sunlight to ripen, but also a good amount of heat. Lettuce, on the other hand, like sunlight but hates heat. In fact, it’s so adverse to heat that it has learned to grow in partial shade!
How do you combine the two plants?
- First, pick varieties of lettuce and tomato that will grow in your planting zone.
- After that, use your climate data to inform your decision to put the tomato plant on the southwestern side, while you place the lettuce in the northeastern shadow of your tomato (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere; reverse these directions if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere).
- This will allow the lettuce to soak up morning sun, while also benefitting from afternoon shade and heat protection that the tomato plant can provide easily.
- In turn, the lettuce covers the surrounding soil with its leaves, keeping it cooler and retaining moisture for the benefit of all surrounding plants, including the tomato.
(This concept of placing plants together based on mutual benefit is called companion planting, or in permaculture terms, guild planting. The more benefits you can coordinate between plants, the better! In permaculture terms, this is called stacking functions.)
Precipitation is the various forms of water that fall from the sky, like rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Most gardeners and homesteaders are equally interested in measuring the amount of water hitting a specific area during a weather even like a storm.
We’re also interested in analyzing this data during specific periods like months of the year, seasons, and annually. Nothing grows without water! This is true for gardens, as well as the broader environment of the homestead, town, city, region, etc.
Water data is so vital to us that we really can’t make realistic plans or quality designs without it.
Wind can be anything from a light breeze to a destructive gale force. It isn’t something we think about all the time (unless we live in an unusually wind place), but it needs to be considered when planning for a productive homestead.
Consider the winds that can be particularly harsh in the winter time – do they do damage? Could they? What about your more fragile perennial plants. Might it be a good idea to keep these out of the path of chilly winter winds?
What about the hot, drying winds of summer? Are livestock or even people in the path of those summer winds? Is there anything we can do to prevent that with design or other tactics?
For particularly windy areas, it’s possible to use native, perennial plants to create something called a wind break. A wind break is just what it sounds like – a barrier that “breaks” or interrupts the path of the prevailing winds.
In this article, Our Permaculture Life shares Edible and Ecological Windbreaks for the Home and Garden.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for Climate Information
The easiest way for gardeners and homesteaders to get basic temperature data in the U.S. is for them to use the Plant Hardiness Zone Map Provided by the USDA. That map looks something like this:
From the USDA’s website:
The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones and further divided into 5-degree F half-zones.
Instructions for getting your local data can be found on the website. It is very easy to use, FYI.
There are other hardiness zone maps for around the world. Here are two:
Microclimates and Pushing Your Planting Zones
First of all, it’s important to understand the a microclimate is exactly what it sounds like – a small section of climate. Microclimates are little slices of specific climate contrasted against the more general climate of an entire area.
For example, I live in planting zone 6b but the northwest side of my house behaves more like zone 6a or even 5b in that it’s much colder during the winter than the broader area.
However, during the evening hours of summertime, that same area jumps up to a planting zone 7 due to its seasonal exposure to the setting sun. In fact, to narrow it down even further, only one section of that side of the house is exposed to that extreme heat – it’s like a microclimate within a microclimate!
These slices of our gardens and homesteads have their own local area that has a very specific pattern of weather (or effects from weather like my summer exposed area) that is different from the ambient climate of the homestead as a whole.
How to Use Microclimates
There will be an article on this website that is devoted entirely to building and using microclimates for specific needs, so we’ll cover this topic here briefly and link to that article once it’s written.
Use a Microclimate to Heat
In cold climates, creating “hot beds” for plant growth or harvesting purposes can come it handy. The following are two simple examples from the garden:
- A stone wall with southern exposure and low wind can act as battery for the winter sun. The winter sun is weaker but it still sends down warming radiation every day. The stone captures the heat of the day and retains it, slowly releasing it to any nearby plants.
- If you’d like to be able to harvest cold hardy green throughout the winter (and your planting zone will allow for it), you can cover your fall kale bed with horticultural plastic. Likewise, you can create a cold frame to capture sunlight and keep the greens just enough warmer than the outside temperatures to enable you to continue to harvest the kale even in the winter.
Both of these examples involve creating a microclimate with specific conditions to allow for the capture of the sun’s energy to warm surrounding plants.
Use a Microclimate to Cool
Likewise, you can create a microclimate to cool surrounding plants and even livestock. Here are two examples:
Using shade trees, perennial bushes, and even vining plants, you can cool a building like a home or a barn. It can be appropriate to use all these things in one space. For example, as a shade tree grows tall enough to block summer sun, plant native shrubs around the base of the structure and a trellis to assist a vining plant to begin growing right away. Grape are a great selection for perennial vines; something like Malabar spinach is fantastic for quick cover during the growing season.
To cool the garden soil from the summer sun, keep the soil constantly covered in growing plants and/or mulch. Or both! Shade from leaves, roots retaining moisture in the soil, and a cover of straw or other mulch will keep the soil temperature from fluctuating and overheating. This keep the beneficial microbes in the soil happy and thriving, which in turn keeps your plants happy and thriving.
In short, microclimates allow us to tailor the conditions of our garden, home, barn, and other areas on the homestead to the particular needs of the plants, animals, and people living in those areas.
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Climate and Microclimate Resources
Here are a few more articles that might be helpful as you consider gathering climate data for your homestead, as well as how to use it.